Reconciliation among our Lutheran neighbours

In years gone by, the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA) tended to look to North America and to Europe when locating brothers and sisters in the faith, in terms of fellowship arrangements. We occasionally need reminding that Lutheran churches in South East Asia are our immediate neighbours with whom we have long-standing and close relations that have continued to be nurtured by our mission department, ever since the late Pastor Ron Gerhardy occupied the position of Mission Director, decades ago.

There is nothing to match personal encounter when fostering inter-church relations. Pastor Neville Otto and Mrs Glenice Hartwich keep in close contact with our immediate Lutheran neighbours overseas.

Under their supervision, many members of the LCA continue to serve as volunteer workers in neighbouring churches to the north of Australia. My own involvement in South East Asia has meant an annual trip over the past decade, mainly to Sabah in East Malaysia where, thanks to a generous annual donation from an Australian benefactor, a Lutheran study centre has been established at Sabah Theological Seminary in Kota Kinabalu. The aim of the study centre is to increase understanding of Lutheran theology amongst undergraduate students and Lutheran pastors (who are already serving in the ministry).

My most recent trip in mid-September was made to West Malaysia at the invitation of Bishop Philip Lok, the retiring bishop of the Lutheran Church of Malaysia, and of Bishop Terry Kee, bishop of the Lutheran Church of Singapore. It involved something quite different when compared to my normal program of lectures and talks. The bishops requested that I offer two key-note addresses at a retreat involving leaders of both churches, held at the Ramada Hotel in Malacca, West Malaysia. Incidentally, readers may remember that Malacca was a colonial outpost of China, then Portugal, then the Netherlands and then the British. Along with Batavia (now Jakarta in Indonesia), it’s the oldest European outpost in South East Asia. Old buildings with distinctive architecture are a constant reminder of the long colonial history of this famous city.

Some details about the historic meeting and events leading up to it may be of interest to readers. Most will know that Singapore was originally part of the Federation of states that formed Malaysia in 1963. Malaysia has its origins in the Malay kingdoms subject to the British Empire in the 18th century. The first British territories were known as the Straits Settlements, the Malay kingdoms then becoming British protectorates. The territories on Peninsular (West) Malaysia were first unified as the Malayan Union in 1946, which was restructured as the Federation of Malaya in 1948, and achieved independence on 31 August 1957. Malaya united with Sabah and Sarawak in North Borneo, and with Singapore on 16 September 1963, with the letters, ‘si’, being added to give the new country the name Malaysia. However, less than two years later in 1965, Singapore was expelled/seceded from the federation and continues to be a separate political entity to this day.

Despite the separation of Malaysia and Singapore in 1965, the Chinese-speaking Lutherans of both countries continued to worship and witness in the one Lutheran Church of Malaysia and Singapore ─ until 1997 when various factors (mainly political and financial, and certainly not theological) led to a breach. This had been the situation until Bishops Kee and Bishop Lok drew up a Memorandum of Understanding last year, outlining the goal of reconciliation and renewal of close ties between the Lutheran Church of Malaysia and Singapore.

At the RENEW retreat held 15-17 September, over one hundred representatives from both churches – pastors and lay people – worshipped together, prayed together, asking each other for forgiveness for hurts caused in the past. The Memorandum of Understanding was endorsed with concrete proposals for joint ministry and mission. My two presentations developed the theme, ‘Healing with the Power of Forgiveness’, concentrating on the ‘power of powerlessness’ exemplified in God’s act of forgiving and reconciling sinners in Christ. Perhaps the most moving moment came when all present moved freely about the large auditorium, embracing every other person present.

From now on the two Churches will remain structurally separate and independent under Bishop Kee in Singapore and the newly elected Bishop Aaron Yap in Malaysia, but they will now work in much closer cooperation with each other, sharing printed and human resources among other things. These Lutheran churches (like the Tamil-speaking Lutheran Church of Malaysia) are relatively small, yet vibrantly alive. They offer a vital Christian witness in an officially Muslim country where being a Christian often involves personal and institutional difficulties.

The Lutheran Church of Malaysia has about 9,000 members in 58 congregations, served by 65 pastors, both men and women. The smaller Lutheran Church of Singapore has nearly 3,000 members in seven congregations served by about 25 pastors, again including ordained men and women. The high number of pastors relative to congregations is explained by the fact that congregations have worship services in both Chinese and English, and sometimes in various Chinese tongues too.

Participation in this event of reconciliation will remain a highlight of my retirement years!

If you would like to consider the opportunity to serve as a volunteer in mission, serving in practical ways, teaching English, teaching in the seminaries and institutions of our partner churches, or in local churches, you are invited to phone Nevin on (08) 8267 7300 or email For more information, go to

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